Donald Glover's Evolving Vision of Black Kinship

In the season finale of “Atlanta,” as in his recent “This Is America” video, the artist shows his preoccupation with the burden and blessing of the communal bond.

Darius, Earn, and Paper Boi in the Season 2 finale of Atlanta (FX)

In one of the central conflicts of Atlanta’s sophomore season, the shiftless Earn (Donald Glover) fears his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), better known by his stage name, Paper Boi, will fire him.

Earn, who has served as Paper Boi’s manager since the latter first began rapping, has seen his professional insecurities deepen throughout the season: In the second episode, the two men meet the rising young rapper Clark County, whose hyperconnected white manager is a threat to Earn; in Episode 9, Al chides Earn for landing the men in several awkward situations by skimping on accommodations. As Al’s profile grows, so, too, does his frustration with his bumbling cousin, who is bogged down by both inexperience and personal indiscretions.

“Robbin’ Season,” as the FX show’s second installation has been dubbed, fixates on those ties: the fraying ones that bind Al to Earn, but also Earn to his baby mama/sometime-girlfriend, Van (Zazie Beetz), Al and Earn to Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) and Tracy (Khris Davis), and all black people to one another. If the unspoken premise of the series has always been that black people can only rely on one another, “Robbin’ Season” has made clear that this is both burden and blessing. Atlanta never plots these linkages neatly on an easily legible matrix: In some scenes, even entire episodes, the weight of community ties seems suffocating; in others, it’s evident that none of the characters would survive without one another. The distance between those two points is what Atlanta mines, and what resonates most powerfully.

In Thursday night’s finale, titled “Crabs in a Barrel,” Al reassures Earn of the gravity of the two men’s bond. Paper Boi does so as they settle into a flight kicking off the European tour on which the rapper will be opening for headliner Clark County. After several uncomfortable, charged interludes throughout the episode, Al chooses this quiet moment to remind his downtrodden cousin that their loyalty to one another—and the understanding they share as kin, both literal and fictive—matters far more than the industry connections that someone like Clark County’s manager might offer.

“I saw what you did. At TSA. You ain’t gotta say shit. Just know that’s exactly what I’m talking about,” Paper Boi says, referencing Earn’s quick decision to stash Al’s uncle’s gun in a different bag to protect the men. “Niggas do not care about us, man. Niggas gon’ do whatever they gotta do to survive, ‘cause they ain’t got no choice. We ain’t got no choice, either. You my family, Earn … You the only one that knows what I’m about. You give a fuck. I need that. Aight?”

The scene is particularly poignant following the multiple debacles that led to the flight. In one, Darius blithely announces that his passport has expired and he needs a same-day renewal. To obtain the new document, he and Earn head to a Jewish-owned passport service, where the teller processing Darius’s passport informs them that his cousin is a renowned entertainment lawyer. Prompted by Earn, who’d taken Al to meet with a black lawyer in the episode’s opening scene, the teller adds that “black people just don’t have the connections that my cousin has. For systemic reasons.” The answer colors the conversation Earn has with Darius as the two men wait for the passport. Anxious, Earn wonders if Al will fire him, and Darius insists that whatever awaits Earn won’t happen until the crew lands in Europe. “Everything’s moving, but he ain’t gon’ never forget to take care of the one’s supposed to provide for, including you,” Darius assures Earn. “But y’all both black, so I mean y’all both can’t afford to fail.”

The juxtaposition of this statement with the teller’s matter-of-fact response—about systemic barriers keeping black lawyers and, by extension, black people, from realizing success—is somber, a hallmark of Glover’s meditative show. If it’s obvious that the system of white supremacy will restrict black people from succeeding within it, Glover implies, what responsibility do black people have to support one another in the hopes of advancing as individuals, as a community? At what point does the burden outweigh the blessing? What are the limits of any community’s ability to rely solely on itself when power continues to be concentrated elsewhere?

To his credit, Glover, who has had a sometimes fraught journey negotiating his own blackness (and gender) in public, doesn’t claim to have the answers. “Robbin’ Season”—and “Crabs in a Barrel,” specifically—wrestles with some of the same questions Glover provoked with the video for “This Is America,” a new song he first performed during his Saturday Night Live appearance last week. As his musical persona, Childish Gambino, Glover sings the stylistically dissonant track as children dance around him, employing moves from body rolls to the South African Gwara Gwara. The scene is jubilant, then haunting, as Glover suddenly shoots the man sitting in front of him. The video ricochets back and forth between these two modes, alternately jocular and macabre.

The tonal incongruity of seeing a black man carry out executions mirroring those that have entered the public imagination as symbols of white supremacist violence—particularly Dylann Roof’s massacre of nine congregants in a South Carolina church—is jarring. The song itself recalls the terror and eroticism of “Boogieman” and “Zombies,” from Gambino’s 2016 Awaken My Love!. Glover, who noted in his opening SNL monologue that “some people have described me as a triple threat, but I kinda like to call myself just a threat,” complicates the imagery of racialized terror. Without resorting to empty invocations of “black-on-black crime” mythology, Glover implicates himself. To be black in America is to never be safe, the video suggests. “This Is America,” both playground and penitentiary, a place of celebration and mourning.

Safety is never guaranteed for the men of Atlanta (and certainly not for the show’s oft-neglected women) when they are around one another; danger and uncertainty lurk in every corner. “Robbin’ Season” is a melange of anxieties—both the characters’ and that of the city and country they inhabit. If “This Is America” suggests that joy is both possible and temporary even in this context, “Crabs in a Barrel” suggests the same of pain: Earn and Al have both suffered, but in the end they’re all they got.